Keywords: internet, netart, geopolitics, art, technology, borders, networks, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile, Astrovandalistas, Brian Mackern, Chimbalab
With the gleam of novelty long since worn away and any romantic hopes for a revolutionary new technological society replaced with cautious optimism, the Internet and the cultural practices that have been borne out of this digital-scape must be examined with the same critical faculties that other hegemonic entities have long been subjected to. With the economies and social configurations that the Internet perpetuates now deeply embedded in every facet of the developing world, it is imperative to identify the ideologies transported along its infrastructure as it continues its incessant march toward complete global penetration. While there is no doubt that the Internet has proven to be a revolutionary tool for advancements in communication and a host of other applications, it is far from the social panacea it was once perceived to be. The reason it appears to hold such utopian potential is because difference has been almost entirely programmed out. The chasm between populations with unlimited access, who are completely literate in all aspects of the technology and who have the economic power to consume and produce online commodities, and those who do not, creates a situation where a normative online identity predominates over a digital “other.” The former group dictates online culture while the latter is left to respond. Those who navigate between these two realities, and have stakes in both sides of the technological divide, form a subaltern class.
Artists from Latin America, many living in the aftermath of colonialism and in the midst of overbearing globalization, have reason to be wary of the idyllic claims made for the Internet. Despite working in an environment of veiled racial demarcation that is entrenched in Western ideology, the artists discussed in this essay have developed practices that respond to the language and symbolism of the Net through a criticality infused with personal and collective identity. These artists operate from a categorically different position than that of dominant web-influenced discourses like the Post-Internet or the New Aesthetic, and speak instead to the politics and identities of the Internet’s subaltern.  While there are many examples of Latin American cultural producers working in this liminal space, this investigation focuses on projects by the Astrovandalistas, a transnational artist collective with a web of members from Latin America whose installations and hacking workshops comment on the politics of the web while promoting interpersonal interactions that work against disembodied virtuality; Montevideo-based artist Brian Mackern, whose multi-year project Netart latino database (2000–2005) uses the form of the online archive to address the lack of Latin American artists who are included in exhibitions about Internet Art; and Chimbalab, a Santiago, Chile based media lab run by artists Claudia Gonzalez-Godoy and Costanza Piña that operated from 2008 to 2011. These projects not only use the web and its corresponding technologies as platforms, material, or points of departure for critical dialogue, they also adapt and reconfigure the forms familiar to the network to create alternative spaces that allow for other types of interactions between communities not served by typical Internet resources.
In order to understand the practices of artists from Latin America dealing with networking technologies both in and out of the Web, the need for alternatives to the Web must first be established. The argument made here hinges on there being a marked difference between the Internet as it is experienced in places like Latin America, where English is typically not the primary language and Internet penetration on average hovers around 55%, and the United States, the country where most content and content production technology originates.  Anyone who has traveled to a different country and accessed the Internet may be at least somewhat aware of these differences. But this disparity goes beyond not being able to access certain content that is region-specific or being forwarded to a country-specific Google domain. The Internet that a user in Mexico navigates is not entirely the same Internet that one in the United States surfs. They are not different parts of the same ocean.
Although the Internet seems to be an amorphous, borderless space, international boundaries have an immense effect on how the Internet is experienced and regulated. Yes, the World Wide Web itself can be thought of as a singular network, but the actual experience, capabilities, and agency that a user has on the Net varies based on multiple geopolitical factors. The analogy of the Internet to the rhizome, as conceptualized by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is the most popular model for understanding the Web as a comprehensive, multi-nodal network.  This ideation lends credence to the myth that accessing the net through one portal is equivalent to entering it through any other. But this is a privileged mindset. Linguistic, political, economic, and infrastructural variables across the globe are just a few of the factors that create taxonomies among user groups and determine levels of access to the net. URLs, the equivalent to addresses online, carry geographic markers that tie these virtual spaces to real world borders. Whereas sites in the United States remain neutral territory, addresses with other country code top-level domains (e.g., .mx, .ar, and .br) are immediately identified as foreign. While there is plenty of content on the web available in the colonial languages spoken in Latin America (e.g., Spanish and Portuguese), the region still pales in comparison to more developed nations in terms of content produced, availability of Internet connections, and the population’s familiarity with the tools of the web.  In many parts of the world, ubiquitous net connectivity is not a general cultural condition but an unfeasible distant goal, or even a cultural or environmental imposition to traditional ways of life. Furthermore, many in the developing world who are just now gaining access to the Internet are finding a highly developed cyberspace whose guidelines, etiquette, and aesthetics have already been established. Writing in 1993, Rejane Spitz, an artist and new media scholar, presciently identified the early signs of this rift when speaking about computer technology: “Some people will have access to the creation, development, and control of computer technology while others will have to follow—and fit into—the designs, rules, and logic established by the first group.”  Online and offline minority groups have not been adequately considered by technological discourses, leaving cultural producers from the Internet’s subaltern out of many of these conversations. Because of this, many artists and technologically-versed user groups in Latin America have begun building networks that fall outside of the bounds of the standard Internet.
The biases that are built into the web, when combined with differences in language, politics, culture, and aesthetics that are specific to Latin America, lead artists operating from liminal positions to work reactively to a virtual status quo. Despite the disparity in resources, the artists discussed here are fostering communities that use technology to address local issues while also adopting the hacker ethos to maximize their impact. The importance of identifying as Latin American while working in the context of new technologies is considered by Brian Mackern when he asks: “Is the ‘low-tech’ made in Europe similar to the ‘low-tech’ made in Latin America? They appear to be the same, but I think that one ‘works’ from ‘shortage’ whereas the other ‘fashions’ due to ‘over-saturation.’”  This “shortage” describes the position of artists working not just in Latin America, but also anywhere that new technologies impose a set of non-native cultural modes. Much earlier, Rejane Spitz was looking to answer a similar question: “Is the role of the artist who uses emergent technologies in the Third World different from the role of those who deal with electronic art in developed nations?”  These questions point to a need to identify cultural production in the field of new media through a consideration of the contextual idiosyncrasies tied to geographic location. As will be evidenced by the projects discussed, artists working from a position of “shortage” are using technological apparatuses and Web connectivity to address the shortcomings of the network while rejecting the normative modes of the Internet in favor of community-building strategies that reflect a concern for locality. It is through this position of geographic and cultural difference where the greatest revelations about the Web can be made, and it is the site from which the claims being made about art after the Internet must be contested.
Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, Brian Mackern was one of the first artists from Latin America to begin using the Internet as a platform for the production and dissemination of artworks. From 1996 to 2003, Mackern’s practice focused primarily on the Net, resulting in pieces like 4ud10//pr0t3ct10n (1997), net.art.origin (1998–9), and interferences (2000), which employed ACII drawings, unconventional HTML code, embedded audio, and Flash animations—strategies typical of Internet-based art at the time.  The key difference here from other popular works from this period is that Mackern’s work was being produced in a region whose Internet infrastructure was still in its nascent stages. Despite having no bearing on the legibility or quality of the work, its geographic origins did render it nearly invisible to mainstream discussions about Internet Art. During this phase of technological development, there was very little attention directed at work from artists operating in the Global South. While there is still a lack of institutional and academic attention given to artists from Latin America working in this burgeoning cultural sphere, much progress has been made, due in no small part to Mackern’s Netart latino database.
Compiled between 2000–2005, the Netart latino database firmly addresses the lack of consideration paid to artists based in Latin America working in digital space, serving as a locus for investigation into a network of cultural producers connected by geographic and cultural ties. Part artwork, part research project, this website-as-archive is staunchly rooted in the politics of online Latin American identity. The webpage opens with an ASCII art interpretation of fellow Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García’s seminal drawing from 1943, America Invertida (America Inverted). The drawing’s inclusion at the top of the site serves a dual purpose. In practical terms, it functions as a navigation menu for the content included throughout the page. Perhaps more importantly, however, referencing Garcia’s drawing connects Mackern’s site to the philosophies attributed to the image. The drawing has long been an important symbol in Latin American discourse as it succinctly portrays the drive to move away from West-centric ideas and reorient academic and cultural modes to focus on the specificities of the Latin American condition. Just below the menu, Mackern’s brief description of the project reaffirms these political allegiances as he establishes the geographic zones covered by the project (i.e., Central and South America) and ends it with the exclamatory caveat, “Spanish only!”  This poignant reminder of the limits of inquiry alongside the weight placed on strict linguistic confines reiterates the artist’s intent to create a space that delineates a dichotomy between the audience being served and the normative Internet user, with the latter left on the outside. The main database comprises a list of hyperlinks to web-based projects organized alphabetically by the country of origin of the artist or collective that produced them and includes a short description of each project alongside the names of the artists associated with the work. Also included on the site are links to relevant e-zines, arts organizations, and mailing lists. In addition to the online archive, an eponymous publication was produced in 2010 that includes essays by Mackern and others that give historical context to the Netart latino database while also manifesting the ideologies of the project through texts and images.  Overall, the Netart latino database is a coherent record of a community of cultural producers and objects from a clearly defined period of time. Although many of the links no longer work, the site still serves as an excellent point of departure for further analyses of web-based projects by Latin American artists, and it paved the way for artists like the Astrovandalistas.
The Astrovandalistas is an artist collective founded in Tijuana in 2010 whose practice straddles borders and defies geographic fixity. Made up of members Leslie García, Rodrigo Frenk, Thiago Hersen, and Andrés Padilla Domene, the collective operates transnationally, hailing from different parts of Mexico and, in Thiago’s case, Brazil (although they are based primarily in Mexico City). This networked mode of working makes evident the type of geographically-displaced cultural production that is possible in the age of the Internet. At the same time, their collective practice reveals an emphasis on human-to-human communication at the local level that works against immaterial social connections and addresses the intersection of humans and technology in the public sphere.
In 2014, the Astrovandalistas constructed a network that mimicked the Internet but instead served to disseminate information about Mexican cyberpolitics for a project entitled #EstoNoEsInternet (#ThisIsNotTheInternet).  Presented for Acciones Territoriales, an exhibition held at Ex-Teresa Arte Actual in Mexico City’s historical center, the project was activated through a series of workshops where the artists led hacking tutorials, conversations, and writing sessions alongside a small group of local participants, with the ultimate goal of creating an alternative digital territory to activate for political means. #EstoNoEsInternet consisted of a set of hacked WiFi routers that bypassed the Internet and were recalibrated as platforms for the distribution of a digital zine that contained articles speaking against Mexico’s sweeping telecommunications laws that allowed rampant government surveillance, violations of privacy, and unwarranted censorship via the Internet. With #EstoNoEsInternet, Astrovandalistas created a space for discussion for a community threatened by online censorship. Not only is the issue of locality is present in the content of the zine, it is also addressed by the technology used to host the zine. The modified routers used for the project emit a signal that can be detected by devices as a WiFi network named “Free WiFi,” but in actuality, the only content of this “network” is the zine itself. As the WiFi routers were distributed to different locations in Mexico City, nodes were added to the network. Because the signal of the routers is limited, to access the #EstoNoEsInternet network a user must be in physical proximity to one of the devices, emphasizing the need to “connect” physically to one of the locations in Mexico City that hosted a device. While they make use of the Internet as a resource, the ultimate goal of #EstoNoEsInternet is interpersonal communication facilitated, but not controlled, by technology. For the Astrovandalistas, excessive ties to government and corporate organizations threaten the integrity of communication that passes through technology, prompting the creation of an alternative that falls outside this sphere of influence.
Similarly, Chimbalab was another artist-run art and technology collaborative that brought together a public wanting to interact with emergent technologies, but did so in parallel to established hegemonies. Founded at the end of 2008 by artists Claudia Gonzalez-Godoy and Costanza Piña, the Chimbalab Project Laboratory for Art and Technology was a workshop-based, self-funded organization that operated from the artists’ live/work space in the Independencia district of Santiago, Chile.  The name of the lab refers to the part of the city in which it was located. Known locally as La Chimba (which loosely translates to “other side”), the area where the media lab was initially based was acknowledged to be a part of the city with limited means, where the most common resource is the plethora of second-hand items that could be purchased in its mercados. By identifying with the Chimba through the project’s name, the collective adopted a sense of locality that was reflected not only in their approach to materials but also in their insistence on community building. The project originated as a response to an identification of an unmet need within their neighborhood as there was no existing organizations established for learning about and working with art and technology, despite a great interest within the artists’ peer group.  Through mostly free workshops that were taught by local experts, amateur techies, and artists, Chimbalab became a hub for experimental practices. The application of the do-it-yourself ethos promulgated through the Internet extended to the collective’s use of materials, which were typically outdated gadgets garnered from nearby used-item vendors. This resourcefulness was especially evident in Chimbalab’s Proyecto Emisora (Broadcast Project).  The work was initiated in 2010 after a major earthquake left the arts group without a venue and consisted of a portable, potato-powered pirate radio station constructed from a grocery cart and electronics that could send and receive FM signals. Trying to envision a tool that could connect people in times of disaster, the piece was a manifestation of the group’s ideologies. Wanting to increase communication between similar groups across Latin America, the duo also helped launch Sudamérica Experimental, an online network of media labs, artists, and technologists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.  Not only did Chimbalab create a pedagogical forum for a community underserved by an existing technological infrastructure, but it also facilitated the formation and expression of a Latin American identity connected by an affinity for the “low-tech.”